Five months after the end of the war in Iraq, a CIA adviser has admitted that his 1,200-strong team of inspectors has discovered none of Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
"We have not yet found stocks of weapons," David Kay, the head of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, said in a first report to closed-door sessions of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, 90 days after the arrival of his group in Iraq. Mr Kay insisted that lines of inquiry on which the group were working might yet yield concrete proof. He hoped to "draw a line" under his work in six to nine months. In the report he argued that the bulkiest material that inspectors were searching for could be hidden in spaces little larger than a two-car garage. "We are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapon stocks do not exist or that they existed before the war and our only task is to find where they have gone".
He said: "Much evidence is irretrievably lost." He also blamed the slow progress on the way Iraq had arranged its WMD activities, the widespread destruction of materials and documents before the war, and looting of suspect sites afterwards.
But the meagre results seem bound to reinforce contentions that the US and British governments, wilfully or by error, grossly exaggerated the scale and the imminence of any threat from Saddam.
Mr Kay could do no better than draw three broad conclusions from his endeavours.
First, he reported the deposed Iraqi leader had "not given up his intentions and aspirations of continuing to acquire WMD" and resuming programmes once sanctions were lifted.
Second, had the Allies not invaded in March, the regime would have continued to develop missiles with a range of up to 1,000km (630 miles), considerably more than the 150km permitted by the UN.
Finally, the report states there were, at minimum, secret research and development activities for chemical and biological weapons, under the umbrella of the Iraqi intelligence services. Those would have left Saddam with a trained corps of specialists, capable of moving swiftly ahead once circumstances permitted. But the evidence unearthed thus far, on the basis of what Mr Kay told Congress yesterday, does not start to measure up to the apocalyptic warnings brandished by George Bush and Mr Blair before the conflict.
On nuclear weapons, Mr Kay is equally downbeat. The team had found no evidence Saddam took any significant steps to build weapons or produce fissile materials after 1998 - when UN weapons inspectors left the country for the last time before their brief return in the three months before war began on 20 March.
The survey group, the report noted, had discovered documents showing dialogue between Iraq and North Korea from 1999, including a meeting in 2000 in Baghdad. But at the time of the invasion, these discussions had come to nothing.
Senior critics such as the former foreign secretary Robin Cook said the failure to find any weapons or agents proved that Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, should have been given more time to complete his work.
In Washington, Democrats were furious. "We need to do some serious thinking about the doctrine of pre-emption," Jay Rockefeller, senior Democrat on the Senate panel, said afterwards. "Yes, we have to wait, but I'm distressed at the need for so much more time."
The Bush administration is seeking a further $600m (£360m) to fund the WMD search. According to The New York Times, the request - part of the $87bn of funding Congress is expected to approve - would increase the size of Mr Kay's team to 1,400 and bring spending on the so-far futile exercise to $1bn.
Mr Kay is said to have speculated that Saddam may even have been bluffing, deliberately letting the West suspect he had chemical and biological weapons, to deter an invasion. Some analysts think the Iraqi leader ordered the weapons destroyed after (or even before) the 1991 Gulf War.Reuse content